Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Dance Party: She Could Go On Singing

The death of a Hollywood insider a few weeks ago inspires, as such things often do, this week's Dance Party.
Robert Dozier

He can easily be called a Hollywood insider, as he was a member of an extended family of writers, producers, actors, and songsmiths.  His father was prolific writer/producer William Dozier, who remains on my radar for his guidance of the oddball, kitschy, totally outrageous TV  series Batman in the 60s (son Robert wrote a few episodes of that campy classic). 

Robert Dozier wrote the Batman episode which introduced
Caesar Romero as The Joker
Dozier's widow, actress Diana Muldaur,
as Rosalind Shays in L.A. Law

Bob called both Joan Fontaine and Ann Rutherford (of Gone With the Wind fame) stepmom, at various times in his life, and through his marriage to actress Diana Muldaur (who is one of my favorite supporting stars of television), was in-law to folk singer/songwriter Geoff Muldaur and his two daughters Jenni and Clare Muldaur, as well as Geoff's ex-wife, Maria Muldaur (and no, this week's Dance Party is NOT "Midnight at the Oasis").

Got all that?  Me neither, but back to Bob.  He grew up in Hollywood, graduating from Beverly Hills High, and after a stint in the army, embarked on a pretty substantial career writing for the screen. 

Dozier wrote promotional films while in the service.

His name is often mentioned alongside those of Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, and Reggie Rose, as one of the leading writers of television's Golden Age.  His autobiographical teleplay Deal A Blow was successful enough to be adapted to the big screen, becoming The Young Stranger, which afforded John Frankenheimer his first feature film directing credit. James MacArthur was the stand-in for Dozier, as a young man ignored by his movie producer father.

The Young Stranger, Dozier's autobiographical film,
starred James MacArthur, with Kim Hunter and James Daly
as his distant parents

TV's Dan August provided an early break
for Burt Reynolds

Bob had a long career in episodic television, writing or producing for dozens of shows including Dr. Kildaire, Have Gun Will Travel, Harry O, Dan August, Hawaii Five-O, The Devlin Connection, and so many others. 

Diana Muldaur, as a blind navigator
in the original Star Trek

He retired from show business in 1989 (his talented wife Diana did as well; you'd recognize her from various Star Trek franchises, and from her stint as barracuda Rosalind Shays on L.A.Law).  Our hero died January 6 at the age of 81.

This week's Dance Party comes from one of Robert Dozier's story credits, which, in 1963, provided Judy Garland with her final film appearance.

I Could Go On Singing had a melodramatic storyline, all about a famous singer who attempts to reconnect with a son she gave up years earlier. The plot's pretty standard, but the film showcases some outstanding concert sequences. Publicity for the film trumpeted Garland's return to musical films; she had not sung in a movie since A Star is Born in 1954. They even changed the title of the flick, from The Lonely Stage ( a much more appropriate title) to I Could Go On Singing, to remind moviegoers they were hearing Judy sing for the first time in 9 years.  In this clip, which is the final song of the film, we can see all the idiosyncratic movements and vocal inflections which give Garland impersonators so much material; still, it's hard to deny her power, even in middle age.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Dance Party: "And I'll Bury Ye, My Billy"

as Johnny the Snitch, "Police Squad!"
William Duell
The New York Times called him "puckish," as he was barely five and a half feet tall, and weighed under 140 throughout his adult life.  He had a masters degree from Yale School of Drama;  one of his classmates, Paul Newman, helped him snag a role in The Hustler in 1961. 

Before hitting the big screen, however, he set a record of sorts, with his appearance in the legendary Off-Broadway revival of Threepenny Opera (the one with Lotte Lenya, Bea Arthur, Charlotte Rea, and all those folks). 

"Threepenny Opera,"
with Jesse Martin as MacHeath

He remained with the long-running show for the entirety of its 6 years.  He would return to the piece in the Joe Papp revival (the one with Raul Julia) and at Williamstown Theatre Festival, opposite Jesse Martin.  Duell's oddball features and diminutive stature probably doomed him to the quirky roles which he played on stage and screen.  In 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he played an epileptic afraid of his own medicine, and in TV's Police Squad!, he played Johnny the Snitch opposite Leslie Nielsen. 

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
In the Nathan Lane revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he played the ancient Erronius, searching for his long-lost children by circling the seven hills of Rome. 
With Mark Lynn-Baker and Nathan Lane
He reunited with Lane in the Broadway revival of The Man Who Came To Dinner,playing the hapless doctor hoodwinked by Sheridan Whiteside.

All of the above supporting roles would warrant Duell's inclusion in these pages, but it was his participation in one of my favorite musicals which seals the deal. 

Our hero created the role of McNair, the custodian for the Second Continental Congress, in the original production of 1776.  I have written previously about my admiration for this outstanding musical, so it's understandable that the news of Williams Duell's death would be of interest to me.  McNair is definitely a supporting character on the canvas of the show, but Duell's participation helped make the role a memorable one. 

Duell as McNair is seated below the tally board,
over William Daniels's left shoulder
He was the only original cast member to remain with the show throughout its Broadway run, never missing a performance.  When the show was revived in 1997, he joined that cast as a replacement for the role of Caesar Rodney, the Delaware delegate dying of cancer.  Most importantly, Duell's performance in the role of McNair is preserved in the film version of the show.
Unfortunately, Sony has blocked most of the clips which were recently available from 1776, the film, so this week's Dance Party comes from the clip presented at those Tony Awards back in 1969.  The music in the show is so beautifully intertwined with the story, that none of the songs are easily lifted from the score to stand alone. 

Scott Jarvis's Courier sings the plaintive
song which mirrored anti-Vietnam sentiment

"Mama, Look Sharp," though, has had some further life as a cabaret favorite.  When 1776 premiered in 1969, it garnered negative reaction from the Nixon White House, as it was thought to be a stinging rebuke of the conservative party and its obstructionist policies; the authors denied such intentions.  The point of this song, however, cannot be denied, as it poignantly illustrates the sacrifice which soldiers make in times of war.  I had the privilege of singing backup on this song several years ago, when I appeared in a concert staged reading of the show at the reopening of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.  I was playing Mr. Thompson, the congressional secretary.  In the original piece, the character is not onstage at this moment, but in most productions these days, he is added to the scene to provide 3-part harmony on this most haunting of ballads.

The following clip includes a bit of the dialogue preceding the number, and shows a little of William Duell's performance as McNair (he's the older imp, smoking the pipe). He died in December at the age of 88.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Theatre Droppings: Basketball, Writers' Block, and the Boys in the Bar

When the closing notice for Broadway's Lysistrata Jones went up, I hurried down to catch their final Wednesday matinee.

The lovely and talented Jessica Hartman, who helped me learn all that tricky hand choreography in Joe's Coat last year, was the show's assistant choreographer, otherwise the show may not have been on my radar. I was very glad to see it, and remain convinced that it could not make a go of it on Broadway because of lousy producing.
It's a delightful show, full of peppy numbers and hilarious quips, and the gang playing it can't be improved upon. The show began in Dallas, I believe, and then had a very successful run in a gymnasium in Manhattan.

The producers moved the show uptown too early, or did not capitalize the move well enough, or something, but there is no excuse for the show to falter so soon, after raves from everybody, including the New York Times.

The ensemble is terrific, with Jason Tam standing out as a geeky booknik, and if somebody doesn't put Lindsay Chambers in a sitcom, the whole world is crazy.

I've heard that a cast album will be recorded, which will give a boost to post-Broadway productions; with its small cast of 20-somethings, the show is sure to have a full life on college campuses. 

I have seen a couple of non-musicals lately, too. Alan Rickman is headlining a new comedy called Seminar, so I booked a seat in the back row, high in the nosebleed section. Here's another piece which will have further life on college campuses, as it concerns a writing seminar attended by four 20-somethings, and a maniacally unhappy instructor with a distinct lack of people skills.

Rickman is the antagonist, and has the least amount of stage time, but the greatest amount of zingers.

I was most impressed with the actors playing the central couple. Lily Rabe made a big splash opposite Al Pacino's Shylock a while back, and she's worth every rave.

I was familiar with Hamish Linklater only through his sitcom work (he played Julia Louis-Dreyfus's brother in her show), and I greatly admire his decision to return to the New York stage after making his television money. He's done Shakespeare and other classics around town, and is making his Broadway debut as the self-deprecating writer who clashes with Rickman in Seminar.

Finally, I took some advice I got from a local online website I visit, DC Theatre Scene.

They carry reviews of all the shows in the DC area, but they also have a NY correspondent, a man named Richard Seff. It was his rave of an off-off Broadway premiere called Accidentally, Like A Martyr which persuaded me to pop down to the lower east side one cold evening. Manhattan is filled to the brim with hole-in-the-wall black box theaters putting on plays, so Seff's recommendation was the only way I would have even heard about this piece.

It was written and directed by a gent called Grant James Varjas, who also wrote himself a dynamite role (and wouldn't you?).
I am sure I have seen this actor before, but I cannot remember where (if you know, please tell me!) Anyway, the play is very well-written and performed, and takes place in a dive bar catering to older gay men. The reviewer described it as a successor to The Boys In The Band, and I won't quibble with that, though it's decidedly better written than that 1960s snarkfest. I was very glad to have taken Mr. Seff's advice and schlepped down to see the show.
You can read Seff's review here, by the way, though you won't see any mention in his rave that he contributed money toward the show's production. That fact would not necessarily have dissuaded me from seeing the show, but I'm frankly surprised that he did not disclose his financial support of the production, even as he raved about its artistry.
Maybe I'm just too old-fashioned to believe that, if a critic is a backer of a show, he really should disclose that information when he delivers an unqualified positive review, particularly one which urges Off-Broadway producers to pick up the show, so that it can have a "long and profitable life." Perhaps those kinds of ethics are gone these days.

I've certainly busted my budget the past few weeks, seeing all these shows, I hope I can figure out a cheaper way to assuage my habit. Maybe a job? Well, I wouldn't go that far...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Theatre Droppings: When Harry Met David

I have got to start resisting the temptation, when I'm visiting my New York Branch, to pop over to the TKTS booth in Times Square.  Even at half price, Broadway shows are just not in my budget, but that has not stopped me in the past few weeks.

Ignoring the advice of all the critics, I was very curious about the major remount/rethink/reconfiguration of the 60s musical, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.

Barbara Harris and John Collum
couldn't save the original

I'd never seen a production of the stage show, nobody ever does it.  Despite having won a Tony nomination for star Barbara Harris back in the 60s, the show has never seen a major revival, and the movie version, the 3rd film in the triumvirate of stage-to-screen musicals which introduced Barbra Streisand to Hollywood, is not fondly remembered. 

Streisand wakes up the flowers,
but delivers a quirky snooze.

The score has some swell items, so clearly, there was book trouble here. With the blessing of the estates of the originators, substantial work was done on the show, to make it more appealing to a modern audience. I believe the changes are viable (I think most of the NY critics disagree), and I enjoyed the performances of all the supporting leads. The new writers reconfigured the story so that the role which Ms Harris and Ms Streisand played is now being played by David Turner, in an endearing and heartfelt performance as a gay man falling in love with his straight shrink (look for Turner's name when the Tony nominations come out).

As David Gamble, Turner creates a sweetly confused gay man with commitment issues.
His is a light, lyrical take on the score, and it's been said his vocal performance is weak, but he stops the show cold with his dramatically satisfying anthem, "What Did I Have That I Don't Have". 

David Turner and Drew Gehling

Drew Gehling, as boyfriend Warren (played in the film by straight-arrow Larry Blyden), has the best pipes in the show, and has been gifted with "Love With All The Trimmings," a song written for Streisand in the movie. I think the ultimate failure of this production, which is closing at the end of the month after a disappointing run, lies with its star. 

Harry Connick smiles in all the promo shots,
 but rarely cracks one onstage

Harry Connick, Jr., is playing the psychiatrist, and his participation has slanted the focus of the show; it now centers around his character's recovery from his wife's death.  The doctor, as in the original, falls in love with his patient's former life (it was always this 60s-style reincarnation stuff which tripped up the story).  In this case, "Melinda" has been updated to be a big band singer from the 40s.  This adjustment is rather an awkward one, but it allows the addition of other standards from the Lerner/Lane musical canon to be shoehorned into the show. 

In the original, Melinda was an 18th century aristocrat.
Here, she's a 1940s band singer.
Jessie Mueller, playing this alter-ego from the past, does a great job with this role, but her performance depends on a chemistry with the show's star.  Harry Connick is a crooner of the first order, but his star power has always had a low wattage for me, and this show reinforces my impression. 

Nobody wanted to see Connick fall for a man,
so Patient Gamble was split in two.
 This guy is no actor, but the redesigned script requires one, so, despite stellar performances from the actors surrounding him, Harry fails to deliver anything near a complete performance.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Doe In The Headlights

This week's Dance Party is inspired, as so often happens, by a dead person.

Doe Avedon

If you're wondering what the hell kind of name is "Doe", you should know that this model/actress/office worker was christened "Dorcas."

That's one of those Shakespearean names which nobody should inflict upon their child.  Anyway, our heroine was working part time as a fashion model when she was noticed by famed photographer Richard Avedon.  He married her, gave her a new name, and during a period in the 1950s and 60s, she was one of those celebrities who was famous for being famous. 

The story of her romance with Avedon lives on, as the basis of the Fred Astaire / Audrey Hepburn musical film, Funny Face.

The clip below is from that film, and it has gained some notoriety on its own.  In 2006, The Gap snagged the rights to this bit, and did some computer magic to give Hepburn the starring role in their commercial for "the skinny black pant."  The commercial is expertly done, but how successful it was in improving sales to girls who had no idea who Audrey Hepburn was, is debatable. 

And you either hate the idea of using old dead celebrities to hawk your product, or you don't care (Audrey's costar in Funny Face turned up dancing with a vacuum cleaner a while back.  Yuck.)  But here is the clip, pure and unadulterated, from the 1957 release.  Hepburn is really in top form here, dancing the hell out of this Bohemian-tinged choreography.

As for our Doe, who was the inspiration for the character Hepburn plays here, she remained with Richard Avedon only 5 years, enough time to give her a minor career as an actress.  Eventually, she remarried, this time to film director Don Siegel of Dirty Harry fame, and she faded from public life.  She died in December at the age of 86.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Dance Party: Whatever Lola Erps

At the risk of mixing my social media, Facebook was all atwitter this week, with a new game.  I'm a team player (though I was always picked last for any team I ever encountered), so I thought I'd play along.  The challenge was this:  determine what song was sitting atop the music charts the week you were born, then find a version of it on YouTube, and post it on Facebook.
I find it fascinating that YouTube has become so universal that it's assumed one can find a version of any song in existence on the site.  But I'm not complaining, since 98% of all my Dance Party clips come from the site.  Anyway, as the week progressed, I got depressed.  It seemed like all of my Facebook friends, at least the ones who were participating in the challenge, were posting "birth week" songs to which I was listening in high school or college.  I don't like feeling elderly, but this game made me feel so.  Nevertheless, I investigated my own birth week, only to discover that the Billboard charts, which determine which song is #1, hadn't even been invented yet.  But by examining record sales and other historical hoohah, we can now determine which songs WOULD have been chart toppers, if there had been a chart to top. 

The big winner my birth week seemed to be a substantial hit, as it remained #1 on this retroactive chart for several weeks. 

I had never heard of the thing, and with good reason.  It's a lousy song called "The Wayward Wind," and it was introduced by a singer nobody has ever heard of these days, a woman named Gogi Grant (sounds like a cartoon character, doesn't it?).  In another example of how ubiquitous YouTube has become, there is actually a clip out there, of Gogi singing her big hit, but it's so friggin' boring, I can't bring myself to post it.  Go here if you are deranged enough to want to hear it.

I didn't want to give up completely on this new Facebook game, so I wondered what else was happening the year of my birth? Naturally, my thoughts turned to Broadway, and what do you know?  The Tony Award for Best Musical that year was (drumroll, please): Damn Yankees.

Damn Yankees is not one of my favorite musicals, but it was one of my favorite theatrical experiences.  The role of Mr. Applegate, the Devil, was a dream role of mine, and back in the early 90s, I had the chance to play it at the Glendale Centre Theatre in California.  I was so pleased with my performance that I posted a clip of my big number as a Dance Party a few years ago.  You missed it?  Go here.

I won't torture you with another clip of my production of Damn Yankees (though the show was a very good rendition). 

Instead, this week's Dance Party comes from the film version.  This movie (which is deeply flawed, primarily by the casting of the non-musical boytoy Tab Hunter as the romantic lead) is important, as it preserves one of the great stage performances of the era.  Gwen Verdon's portrayal of the devilishly seductive Lola caused a sensation on Broadway, but it didn't translate all that well onto film. 

That's not Verdon's fault.  She became recognized, on the strength of Damn Yankees, as the premiere interpreter of choreographer Bob Fosse's work.  The fact that she was sleeping with him had nothing to do with it (and when Ann Reinking became known as HER generation's premiere interpreter of Bob Fosse's work, that didn't have anything to do with the fact that she was sleeping with him, either).

The song which is this week's Dance Party has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of Damn Yankees, it doesn't even make much sense.  While the show is the Faust legend updated to 1950s suburbia, the song below is just another opportunity to show off Verdon's unusual dance technique.  And who better to partner her in the number than her Svengali, Bob Fosse himself?